We are perhaps transitioning from a communications age to one of sustainability.

It is the buzzword of today, used in reference to the environment, economy, development, health care, food and more. During his address last month to Congress on health care, President Barack Obama said, "our health care system is placing an unsustainable burden on taxpayers." He is working to restructure our economy around sustainability and "green" jobs rather than manufacturing and finance as in the past.

The Dow Jones Sustainability Index now tracks the financial performance of leading sustainably driven companies worldwide. We see the ideal in the construction of our homes and businesses. Colleges and universities now are creating environmentally sustainable campuses and adding courses that reflect students' new belief that their futures will be driven by the ideal, says Dr. Shana Weber, sustainability manager in the Office of Sustainability at Princeton University. At Princeton alone, 51 courses now address sustainability in some way, in subjects such as the economy and energy.

We use the word so much, but do we really understand what it means? Is the word so overused it is in danger of losing its meaning?

Sustainability refers to everything

The word carries a "green" connotation, but really everything is connected, says Nancy Gabriel, director of the Donella Meadows Leadership Fellows Program at the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vt. A world in which the environment is pristine but poverty is rampant is not sustainable. She believes the definition includes three components: the environment, economy and social justice.

"It is truly an all-encompassing word," Weber says. "We have to look at business structures. We have to look at social structures. We have to look at almost every aspect of how we live. And so that seems overwhelming, but that's really what it's about. What can we do to stabilize our global environment, social and economic systems?"

The word's modern meaning dates to 1987. That year the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (also called the Brundtland commission after its chair, the Norwegian diplomat Gro Harlem Brundtland) issued a report defining sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

With time a movement began revolving around a word that didn't carry the negative connotations of environmentalism, Weber says. The LEED green building rating system emerged, making environmentalism more mainstream, and then Al Gore released his film, An Inconvenient Truth. The film was released at "exactly the right moment," she says. "It was already in the air, and that film really seemed to galvanize something."

At risk of losing its meaning

Today advertisers and marketers use the word to describe nearly everything. Perhaps the word is in danger of losing its meaning. But we also have been shocked by economic collapse and natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami that devastated South Asia. We have watched water levels rise and glaciers melt. We understand change is necessary. Gabriel wonders whether, in fact, a sustainability age already has passed, whether instead we are entering an age of restoration or regeneration.

"People are feeling that I think our lifestyle of consuming goods, the way our lifestyle is, it has disconnected us from each other," she says. "People are feeling that and feeling and really looking, wanting something different. And so this, all these kinds of collapses are opportunities really to restructure in different in ways."

In a country where more is the American way, is sustainability feasible?

Embedded in our identity is a deeply held ambition to push away at boundaries. Early Americans pushed across the Atlantic and declared our independence. Then we pushed across the continent toward the West, crossing the Mississippi River and scaling the Rocky Mountains. We invented cars and planes and reached for the moon. Over time even our houses and food portions grew in size. "Where's the beef?" we said.

That is why what has happened to our economy is so shocking and painful. The contraction we have experienced is un-American. The discouragement and humility we feel are foreign. Sustainability advocates insist they do not mean for us to lower our standard of living, but rather they want us to understand that less of many things taken together actually can lead to a better life.

Sustainability is a concept we are drawn to because it offers hope, Weber says. It makes us believe we can have both less and more at the same time, that our problems are surmountable, and the solutions lie within us.

"I think we have to shift away from this industrial growth model," Gabriel says. "I really think there is a way to look at how to do development that's more focused on well-being and not on this consuming of goods."

Interested in more? Check out our finance section.

MNN homepage photo: Andyd/iStockphoto

Sustainability: What does it really mean?
More than just green ideas, "sustainability" also refers to the economy and social justice. But is the word being used to death?